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January 25, 2011

Global Art Cinema

Boonmee-Mexico-film-poster.jpg

Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories
Edited by Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover
Oxford University Press - 2010

One night at the Starz Denver Film Festival, I had a brief conversation with a respected documentary filmmaker. We talked a bit about films we saw and those we were looking forward to seeing. I had mentioned Uncle Boonmee and my interest in Thai cinema, as well as my time in Thailand. He had asked me about the "Thai cinema scene". I was a bit stunned, and not sure how to answer. Part of that is because of various factors. In Thailand there are the commercial films that play throughout the country, and then the smaller films that play in Bangkok, possibly in Chiang Mai, or maybe in special venues or festival screenings. Also there is a disconnect with those films that are tapped for import providing a distorted view of the local cinema scene. More specifically, if one based Thai cinema based on what was available in the U.S., one might assume it is either an "art movie" like Uncle Boonmee or an action film with Muay Thai boxing. The truth is more complicated and messier.

There are two problems I have with Global Art Cinema. First, too many of the contributors feel the need to position themselves against David Bordwell and his definition of "art cinema". Bordwell is mentioned so many times that I think he should make a claim for authorship. Second, just because you're an academic doesn't mean you have to write like one. Maybe it's just me, but I think others have proven that one can write intelligently and with insight about film without using words like heterogeneity or intertextually.

What I think Global Art Cinema does right is bring up questions about how films are produced, marketed and perceived, especially those that are (mis)understood to represent their respective countries of origin. For myself, the film raised more questions, rather than provide answers, making me reflect on both the choices of films I see, as well as the films I choose to write about. Additionally, I have to think about how film history, theory and criticism was taught and understood at the time I was going to New York University during the first half of the Seventies. If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have ventured at least a couple of times to the movie theaters in Chinatown, and maybe to the theater that briefly showed the latest Bollywood movie.

There were a couple of essays that I especially liked. Patrick Keating's piece on Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa discusses the differences in his work between Emilio Fernandez and Luis Bunuel. An anecdote regarding Bunuel asking Figueroa to point his camera in the opposite direction of a shot more likely to be found in a Fernandez film is echoed in a recently related story where the Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi would base his filmmaking choices on what would not be done by Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu. Also, Dennis Hanlon's essay on South American filmmakers, mostly Jorge Sanjines, but also Glauber Rocha, talks about trying to create films that will appeal to the intended local audience, express what needs to be address politically, and possibly find a filmmaking language that does not mimic Hollywood or European films.

Uncle Boonmee is an interesting case in point because the films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul are largely financed through European sources. There was also the sense expressed by some in Thailand's film industry that there was little local interest in Apichatpong's films within Thailand. A variety of factors contributed to Apichatpong's films being more widely seen outside of Thailand, although lack of interest could be disputed, as his films were clearly made available at the Chiang Mai DVD store I frequented. Winning the top prize at Cannes made Apichatpong a local celebrity and allowed, or perhaps forced, a theatrical run of Uncle Boonmee in Bangkok, with greater than anticipated attendance. To comprehend why talking about national cinema can create misunderstandings and misstatements about what comprises the cinema of that country, consider this list of the most popular Thai films of 2010. Not only is Uncle Boonmee, the film that has received the most critical acclaim and the greatest international distribution, not on the list, but the only film to get international distribution beyond a pan-Asian audience is Ong Bak 3, based on a dedicated fan base for Tony Jaa and martial arts films. Neither Apichatpong nor Tony Jaa is representative of more than a fraction of Thai cinema, yet that most visible fraction represents the whole for many western viewers.

What Global Art Cinema does is raise the questions about what is meant by a foreign film, who are the people who help make that film, and who is meant to be the audience?

Posted by peter at January 25, 2011 08:39 AM